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Intersex people are born with sex characteristics (such as sexual anatomy, reproductive organs, hormonal patterns and/or chromosomal patterns) that do not fit typical binary notions of male or female bodies. Experts estimate that up to 1.7 percent of the population are born with intersex traits.

Intersex people may have any gender identity or sexual orientation.

For example, an intersex person (sex characteristics), may identify as a man (gender identity) and as heterosexual (sexual orientation).

In recent years, awareness of intersex people, and recognition of the specific human rights abuses that they face, has grown, thanks to the work of intersex human rights defenders.

Human rights abuses against intersex people include, but are not limited to:

  • infanticide
  • forced and coercive medical interventions
  • discrimination in education, sport, employment and other services
  • lack of access to justice and remedies, and legal recognition

To this end, there have been various initiatives by our Office, UN agencies and regional human rights mechanisms including: the Intersex Expert meeting, public education materials by the UN Free & Equal campaign on Intersex Awareness (as well as national UN Free & Equal campaigns) and a joint statement by UN and regional human rights mechanisms. In 2019, the Office issued a Background Note on human rights violations against intersex people. In 2020, the Office issued a report and recommendations on addressing the intersection of race and gender discrimination in sport, including its impacts on women with variations in sex characteristics. And in 2023, the Office issued a Technical Note for States and other stakeholders on UN recommendations on the rights of intersex people and good practices in their implementation. In 2024 the Human Rights Council adopted a resolution on Combatting discrimination, violence and harmful practices against intersex people. The resolution requests the High Commissioner to present a report and organize a panel discussion at the sixtieth session of the Council examining discriminatory laws and policies, acts of violence and harmful practices against persons with innate variations in sex characteristics, in all regions of the world, including root causes, and also examining best practices, especially when addressing the realization of their right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. 

Forced and coercive medical interventions

Intersex children are frequently subjected to unnecessary surgical and other procedures for the purpose of trying to make their appearance conform to binary sex stereotypes. These often irreversible procedures can cause permanent infertility, pain, incontinence, loss of sexual sensation, and lifelong mental suffering, including depression. Regularly performed without the full, free and informed consent of the person concerned, who is frequently too young to be part of the decision-making, these procedures may violate their rights to physical integrity, to be free from torture and ill-treatment, and to live free from harmful practices.

Many intersex adults exposed to such surgery as children emphasize the shame and stigma linked to attempts to erase their intersex traits, as well as significant physical and mental suffering, including as a result of extensive and painful scarring. Many also feel that they were forced into sex and gender categories that do not fit them.

To ensure the physical integrity of intersex persons, States should:

  1. Prohibit medically unnecessary surgery and procedures on the sex characteristics of intersex children.
  2. Ensure that human rights violations against intersex people are investigated and alleged perpetrators prosecuted.
  3. Ensure that intersex people and their families receive adequate counselling and support, including from peers.
  4. Ensure that intersex people and organizations are consulted and participate in the development of research, legislation and policies that impact on their rights.
  5. Provide health care personnel with training on the health needs and human rights of intersex people and the appropriate advice and care to give to parents and intersex children, being respectful of the intersex person’s autonomy, physical integrity and sex characteristics

Additional resources

OHCHR Technical Note on the Human Rights of Intersex People: Human Rights Standards and Good Practices
2023 OHCHR technical note that provides an overview of the international human rights norms and standards and relevant recommendations of United Nations human rights mechanisms and good practices by States in relation to the human rights of intersex people. This includes extracts of outputs of United Nations human rights mechanisms, including Treaty Bodies, Special Procedures and OHCHR. This technical note is a resource for States and other stakeholders to support alignment between national legislation and international human rights norms and standards.

Background Note on Human Rights Violations against Intersex People
2019 OHCHR background note that focuses on the specific human rights violations facing intersex people. This publication highlights the obligations of States, as well as the challenges and advances towards protecting human rights of intersex people.

Born Free and Equal (2nd edition)
2019 OHCHR publication setting out how international human rights law applies to issues relevant to LGBTQI+ populations, including intersex people.

See our full list of publications